For the past few years, my father, photographer Michael O’Brien, has volunteered his time to take portraits at various SongwritingWith:Soldiers (SW:S) events. This year, he invited my mother and me to join him at the February 13 – 15 retreat at the Cedarbrake Retreat Center in Belton, Texas. He encouraged me to attend so that I, a devotee of positive psychology, could observe the transformative collaboration between soldiers and songwriters, and also meet Mary Judd, a positive psychology guru and the co-founder and Executive Director of SongwritingWith:Soldiers. When my father described the Saturday night concert for the retreat participants – when the songwriters passionately perform the new songs they have composed with the soldiers for the very first time — I was convinced I needed to go. As a crisis social worker who encounters human suffering every day, I crave experiences that attest to the triumphant power of resilience.
On the afternoon of Saturday, February 14th, when my mother and I turned onto the Cedarbrake driveway, the soldiers and musicians, who had arrived on Friday, were in the thick of crafting their songs. Voices of passion and pain drifted into our open car windows through the trees of the cedar forest that blanketed the grounds. To bide time until the big concert, the SW:S Development Manager Sabrina Barton, my mother, my father and I embarked on a hike through the winding trails of the campus. As my father recounted details of the morning’s photography sessions, we enjoyed the warm, crisp air, the muted wintertime sun set against the bright blue sky, and the soft crunch of gravel beneath our feet. A half hour later, I parted ways with the rest of the group and veered into the woods off-trail. Eventually, I emerged into a quiet, sunlit clearing. I lay down and watched the striped spiders dance across a swath of Timothy grass, their attached webs glimmering in the fading afternoon light, and looked up at the crooked turns of leafless tree branches. I hoped that the soldiers were feeling the same sense of peace in this Texas oasis.
Back at The Lodge, the headquarters of the creative gathering, my family and I chatted with the soldiers, songwriters and volunteers over a dinner of southern comfort food. I listened intently as seasoned therapist Karen Vandiver explained the power of self-hypnosis and the evidence-based methodology for managing Attention Deficit Disorder without medications. I sat rapt as Joe, a soldier, PhD student, former SW:S participant, and current SW:S volunteer, discussed how he was able to find peace through honesty and artistic expression. We sang happy birthday to Joe and a soldier’s wife, Cheryl, and then, smiling after helpings of orange cream cake, we filtered over to the lodge’s reception area, where the concert would take place.
The soldiers and their spouses took the seats of honor in the front row. My family and I set up camp towards the back, chatting excitedly. The four songwriters, Darden Smith, Georgia Middleman, Gary Burr, and Monte Warden, sat in a line of matching wooden chairs. Without much fanfare, Darden Smith, SongwritingWith:Soldiers Co-Founder and Creative Director, launched into the first song, written earlier that day with a soldier. In turn, each one of the songwriters performed the two songs they had created with the soldiers. In most cases, the soldiers introduced their compositions, giving background on their careers in the armed forces and their subsequent journeys of struggle and healing. Narratives of trauma, strength, and love — even a humorous tale of the perils of abstaining from beer and bacon — washed over us. Nearly all the audience members palmed a napkin, intermittently dabbing at their eyes, as the supply of tissues had been exhausted long before during the emotional songwriting sessions.
With each song, the feeling of connection in the room grew more palpable. A military wife embraced a female soldier who had bravely used her song as an opportunity to process and share her long-secret experience of surviving sexual assault by a military superior. The audience clapped along as one of the musicians, Gary Burr, performed, “I Drive,” the tale of the veteran who, after having made a living as a skilled semi-truck driver, put his driving talents to work in the armed forces, saving several lives in the process. The whole room cheered as Monte Warden, accompanied by Darden Smith, sang the refrain “Let’s call it PTS and drop the D,” railing against the absurdity of pathologizing the people who fight for our freedom with the label “Disorder.” In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, songwriters Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman sung the story of the two military wives in the group who kept the “plates spinning” and “the fires burning,” all while missing their men in “I Can Do This.” Long after the music had stopped, a soldier and his wife stood in a back corner of the lounge, quietly weeping and holding each other tightly.
A few days after the concert, I received a recording of the song “Drop the ‘D’” from songwriter Monte Warden. As I blasted it in the living room of my house, I thought about my clients. Many of them are veterans, even more carry a diagnosis of PTSD, and nearly all of them, per agency and insurance requirements, end up with the label “disorder” in their medical records. I silently thanked the cosmos for SongwritingWith:Soldiers. The healing experience they provide imparts respect and esteem to those who have risked their lives for the good of others. The positive psychology devotee in me ardently hopes that SongwritingWith:Soldiers represents a strengths-oriented paradigm shift in the world of mental health and beyond. May this shift move us away from pathologizing the human condition and towards honoring the countless individuals who have the courage to face their pain head-on and transform it into something beautiful.